I spent a week in Italy last month learning about and tasting olive oil. The trip was sponsored by the Italian Trade Association as part of an effort to draw attention to superior oils from around the country and to olive farmers and oil producers who aren’t mired in controversy. As you may well know, allegations of fraud, mislabeling, Mafia ties, and more, have swirled around the olive oil industry for years. Not surprisingly, the largest producers appear to be the biggest offenders.
The ones I met seemed to me the opposite of that ~ many of them small producers or farmers and their families who pour their heart and soul into their work and whose oil is unimpugnable. They were among 100 finalists gathered in Perugia for the 24th annual Ercole Olivario competition recognizing outstanding olive oils. Winners announced at the awards ceremony included a new producer ~ a young woman from Sardegna ~ as well as producers from Lazio and Umbria, Abruzzo, Calabria, Liguria, Puglia, and Tuscany.
Afterwards, guests were invited to taste the winning and finalist oils, which ranged in style from soft and buttery (Liguria) to grassy (Umbria) to intensely fruity (Sardegna). What I wanted to do, though, was to grab five or six bottles off the display stands and stash them in my suitcase to bring home. Because the reality is that most of these stellar oils are not available in the U.S.; the makers simply don’t produce enough for export.
Is it possible to get high quality olive oil in the U.S.? Of course, but you have to know what to look for. For example, while the words “extra-virgin” and “cold-pressed” may sound impressive and even reassuring, they are no guarantee that the oil you are buying is good. I’ve posted a bit on this subject before, and I’m offering additional tips below.
The biggest question, of course, is: Does it matter to you? This may sound flip, but that’s not how it is intended. What I mean is: would you pay $20, $30, or even $40 for a 500-ml bottle of olive oil? Are you willing to learn to read labels closely, look for dates in tiny print, and interpret acronyms and vague language?
It’s a complicated and confusing topic, to say the least. But for me the answer is yes. I use olive oil daily, not only for dressing salad or drizzling on soup, but for everyday cooking, and even for baking. Since it is such an integral part of mine and my family’s diet, it makes no sense to use a product that might be cut with dyes, chemicals, or lower-quality oil.
If you really want to delve into the topic, I highly recommend Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s book Virgin Territory, which goes into detail about how olives are grown and harvested and how oil is pressed; plus it explains at length the meaning of terms such as extra-virgin ~ a measure of acidity. The book also provides instructions on how to taste oil.
Also, find a trusted source. Locally I rely on my friend Luanne Savino O’Loughlin, who manages Olio2Go, a shop (and online store) that carries top-quality Italian olive oil. I also trust the folks at Gustiamo, a New York-based importer and retailer of best-quality Italian products.
Following are some rules I’ve found useful in choosing olive oil:
- START with the words “extra-virgin.” Anything other than that is not even worth looking at. Extra-virgin, by the way, refers to the percentage of oleic acid in the oil. To qualify as extra-virgin, the level of oleic acid cannot surpass 0.8 grams per 100 grams of oil (or 0.8%). The best oils, however, have a very low percentage ~ between 0.1 and 0.2 grams per 100 grams of oil. Since you can’t test this yourself (unless you’re really, really ambitious) you need to find a brand or producer you trust.
- BEWARE big brands: Unfortunately, the most recognized names also happen to be those embroiled in allegations of fraud and mislabeling. I stopped buying these brands some years ago because their labels are confusing and I’m just not sure what I’m getting.
- DON’T dismiss store brands: Stores including Costco, Wegmans, and Whole Foods, sell decent (if not great), affordable oil under their brand names. However, the levels of oleic acid in these oils, while still falling withing the range for extra-virgin, may be higher than that of best-quality oils.
- READ the labels to see when the oil was made, where the olives are from, and whether the letters “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or “DOPG” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta Garantita) are included. These terms mean that the oil has met certain national standards for quality.
- LOOK for clues in words. Terms such as “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy” likely mean that the olives, and maybe even the oil, come from outside of Italy. If you read the small print, you will sometimes see listed the countries of origin for the olives.
- COLOR is not necessarily an indication of quality. Some fresh oils are very green, others are more golden-green. It depends on the type of olive and how ripe the olives are when pressed. Older oils, however, tend to be gold, with no hint of green.
- MOST experts recommend buying oil in heavy, dark-green bottles. Sunlight is olive oil’s enemy and oil left on the counter in a clear glass bottle can degrade pretty quickly.
- TASTE and take note of the aromas and flavors. Freshly mown grass, tomatoes, artichokes, buttery, lemon, and (of course) olives are among the notes you’ll find in a good oil. If the oil tastes musty or flabby or there is even a whiff of petroleum (think Vaseline), toss it.
You’ll find more helpful facts about olive oil here.
And now, on to the artichokes. You might think it an odd segue, but olive oil and artichokes have plenty in common. They are expensive (this side of the Atlantic, anyway) and they complement each other beautifully. Like olive oil, artichokes have a “green” or vegetal flavor and a bitter note.
Artichokes were all over the markets and on restaurant menus in Umbria and Rome when I was there. What a bummer to come back to the scarred gray specimens in the supermarkets here around DC. Then, just when I was about to give up, I found a pretty good crop at my local Whole Foods.
I made carciofi alla romana ~ artichokes braised in olive oil, water, and wine in the Roman style ~ using a recipe from Rachel Roddy’s new book My Kitchen in Rome as my guide. It is absolutely one of my favorite ways to enjoy artichokes. The slow simmering on the stovetop turns the inhospitable vegetable into something completely different, tender enough to cut with a spoon.
Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of cleaning artichokes. All you need is a sharp or serrated knife to saw off the tough tops of the leaves (I used my tomato knife) and a good paring knife for trimming. And the will to keep paring away until all the tough parts are gone. You’ll end up with a giant pile of leaves, and it seems like a lot of waste, but there’s nothing appealing about those tough bits.
Use a pot with high sides to cook the artichokes if you have one. This allows you to place them vertically in the pot, stems up. Since my pot was too shallow I was forced to lop off the stems and cook them alongside the chokes. Not nearly as elegant. I used a good, not-too-intense olive oil from Sicily (2015 harvest; sold under the Whole Foods label) to braise the artichokes; then right before serving I gave them a splash of spicy, slightly bitter Umbrian olive oil to bring out that “green” flavor.
This quintessentially Roman dish calls for seasoning and braising whole trimmed artichokes. Tamed by the slow simmer ~ here in a combination of water, wine, and olive oil ~ the spiny vegetable turns buttery and tender enough to cut with a spoon. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil at serving time to echo the artichoke's own buttery, sweet-bitter flavors. Recipe adapted slightly from My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, by Rachel Alice Roddy (Grand Central Life & Style 2016).
- 4 large globe artichokes, with stems still attached
- 1 lemon, halved
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Squeeze the lemon into a bowl of cold water. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, parsley, and mint. Add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper.
Clean the artichokes: pull the tough outer leaves downward and snap them off at the base. Continue until you are left with the tightly closed center leaves. Using a sharp paring kinfe, pare away the tough green layer of flesh from the base and stem of the artichokes. Cut about 1 inch off the tops of the chokes. Dip them in the acidulated water as you go to prevent browning.
Open up the artichoke flowers and use a small spoon to scrape out the fuzzy choke inside. Press some of the herb-and-garlic mixture into each cavity and between the leaves. Arrange the articokes, stems upward, in a heavy-bottomed pot tall enough to accommodate their height. If you don't have a tall enough pot (I don't) you'll need to cut off a portion of the the stems; just toss these into the pot with the artichokes.
Add the wine, olive oil, and enough water to come one-third of the way up the artichokes. Cover the pot with a damp tea towel or a damp doubled-over piece of paper towel and put the lid on over the towel. Bring the edges of the towel back over the top of the pot. Set the pan over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Cook at a gentle simmer for about 40 minutes, reducing the heat to low if necessary. The artichokes are ready when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to a serving plate, stems upward and let them cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour these over the artichokes just before serving. Drizzle a thread of olive oil over all and serve.